Photo by Little Dragon.
Mats Sundin is back—and frankly, we can’t figure out why.
Because if we were Mats Sundin, we’d have left the Toronto Maple Leafs ages ago. We’d have read one single letter to the sports editor of the Toronto Sun bemoaning the fact that a foreigner—a Euro!—could be captaining the Maple Leafs, and we’d have immediately gone someplace more…well, tolerant. If this were any other city, any other sport even, Sundin would be lauded as a genuine superstar. He’s the team’s best (and sometimes its only) offensive weapon, its undisputed leader, its one sure-fire future Hall of Famer. But in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs are given blanket coverage even when they’re not actually playing, Sundin gets scrutinized—often unfairly—by a media which depends on the team for attention. And in the Sun, which fancies itself to be the voice of Leafs Nation, readers are given a forum in which Sundin is generally dismissed as overrated, overpaid and—worst of all—bereft of the one quality which defines any real on-ice leader: heart.
The notion of “heart,” and Sundin’s imaginary lack of same, is never far from discussions of the Leaf Captain’s merits. And more often than not, the argument boils down to a single point: Sundin isn’t Canadian, and therefore can’t lead. In the 2002 playoffs, for instance, when Sundin was sidelined with a wrist injury, Gary Roberts almost single-handedly willed the Leafs to the Eastern Conference Finals. When Sundin returned, the Leafs were eliminated—and Sundin’s critics had a field day. This, they said, was proof positive that Mats Sundin wasn’t fit to be wearing the “C” in Toronto. Gary Roberts, they said, now there’s a real leader, a good Canadian boy, a player with (here’s that word again) “heart” in abundance. The fact that the Leafs’ opponents, the Carolina Hurricanes, were simply the better team was hardly mentioned.
The trouble with heart, at least in the context of the NHL, is that it’s a red herring: it’s invoked as a legitimate critique of a player’s merits, but it’s usually a thinly-veiled excuse for exercising good ol’ fashioned cultural stereotypes. It’s been well-documented that no European captain has ever led his team to a Stanley Cup victory; logically, then, Europeans aren’t fit to lead an NHL team onto the ice…right? What that statement actually means, however, is simply, “You’re not Canadian, and therefore you’re not worthy.” It’s cultural protectionism at best, bigotry at worst.
Last December, with the Leafs mired in a slump and Sundin dealing with the aftereffects of a knee injury, the Toronto Sun published a letter to the sports editor which wondered, without a trace of irony: “Why do the Leafs keep this inept, mediocre second-line centre? And he isn’t a leader, so why is he the captain? Get rid of Mats Sundin—it is a move that is long overdue. Funny how the team wins with Darcy Tucker when Sundin is off. I will become a Leafs fan once again when the team rids itself of Sundin. And, please, do not get any more inept Swedes—I have had enough with Borje Salming and Sundin.” (Salming was so inept in his day that he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and is generally regarded as the player who spearheaded European involvement in the NHL.) These aren’t isolated sentiments: the Sun regularly publishes missives written by people seemingly hell-bent on running Mats Sundin out of town. Some people apparently still haven’t gotten over the fact that Sundin was acquired for Wendel Clark, one of the most popular players in team history.
Again, these attitudes are couched as a genuine discussion of a player’s merits. They’re not: they’re horribly backwards, and it’s astonishing that there are people, in the year 2007, who still think like that. We’re assuming Sundin likes the attention: after all, it comes with the territory of being the most visible player on the most popular sports franchise in Canada. During the off-season, while Sundin was renegotiating his contract, the Sun‘s Steve Simmons—doing right by his Toronto sports media brethren by making a mountain out of a molehill—invented a possible career-ending injury for Sundin which threatened to sabotage the entire process. The issue blew over—much like Sundin’s well-publicized real estate dealings, also concocted by Simmons, from the previous off-season—but showed once again that Sundin, ten years into his tenure as the Toronto Captain, is still a lightning rod for attention. His team, meanwhile, is mediocre at best, and seems destined to struggle for a playoff berth again in 2007/08. And if we got wind of a single letter in the Sun that ripped on us solely on the basis of our nationality, we’d find someplace else to ply our wares.
Photo of Mats Sundin by Aaron Webb.